Lawrence of Arabia Review
David Lean is probably seen by most film enthusiasts as the great epic film director, with such classics as Lawrence of Arabia and Bridge on the River Kwai being regularly cited as influences for films as diverse as Braveheart, Gladiator and even, God help us, Tomb Raider. However, Lean only came to epic film directing after many years of making far lower-key films such as his excellent adaptations of 'Oliver Twist' and 'Great Expectations', to say nothing of his seminal film of Brief Encounter. Therefore, it would be tempting to assume that the film has rather more interest in character and plot than spectacle for the sake of spectacle, which is indeed true for this film, although perhaps not so for Lean's Dr Zhivago or Ryan's Daughter.
The basic plot is the stuff of Boy's Own adventures. TE Lawrence (O'Toole) is dispatched by his superiors, led by Mr Dryden (Rains) and General Allenby (Hawkins) to assist the Arabs in their battle against the Turks. Lawrence goes rather further than his brief, scandalising the British and befriending such characters as Prince Feisal (Guinness), the leader of the Arabs. Unsurprisingly, epic battle scenes, hundreds of extras and a truly stunning sense of size and scale dominate the film, but there's also a pleasing sense of character delineation in the ambiguity of what Lawrence actually wants. One of the key moments is when a motorbike rider (Lean, ironically enough) calls to him 'Who are you?', and Lawrence is unable to answer. The indication is that, for all his heroism and daring, Lawrence's motivations are confused and ambiguous.
The film is an undeniable classic, although somewhat flawed. For a start, it's far, far too long (4 hours, give or take), of which a great deal was edited out for reasons of length; however, this new version is the definitive director's cut, for better or for worse. I suppose that my own problem with the film is that it's far too historically literal in its portrayal of Lawrence; it never considers the theory that has gained credence that Lawrence was a British spy who was investigating Feisal for suspected treason, for instance. Likewise, while Peter O'Toole is extremely good in a very difficult part, there are moments where it is simply impossible to read into his performance the kind of depth that a portrayal of Lawrence would demand. Equally, there are moments here where Lean seems almost to indulge himself in his grand, sweeping shots of thousands of extras, rather than driving the plot along.
However, these are ultimately minor quibbles. The film is a magnificent adventure, a stirring piece of entertainment and worthy of a place in any DVD collection, although I can't help thinking that, like many 'greatest films of the 20th century', its reputation doesn't need to be looked at again, with intelligent and considered re-evaluation. I wouldn't say it's a 10/10 film, for instance, although there is more great stuff scene by scene than virtually any other film you will ever see, simply because there is the feeling throughout that the parts are greater than the whole.
Columbia have done a truly wonderful and beautiful job on this film, which has to be seen to be fully appreciated. Of course, it's not as good as a 70mm presentation in a large cinema screen, but it's about as good a transfer as you could realistically hope for, and, next to Criterion's version of Spartacus, the best transfer for a film of this age I've seen. The only minor caveat is that, occasionally, some scenes have slight shimmering on light colours in the scene, a minor irritation that might have been fixed if Columbia had employed film restoration expert Robert Harris here. Still, there is little if any grain, colours are wonderfully defined, and the overall effect is very pleasing.
A 5.1 remix has been provided that is actually of benefit to the film for once, with Maurice Jarre's famous score sounding better than it has ever done. Likewise, the battle scenes benefit from some greater use of surround effects. I wouldn't say it's a perfect remix, given that the dialogue doesn't have the 'natural' sound that a new film's soundtrack would have, but it's an extremely good effort on Columbia's part all the same.
The main extra here is a very good one, a very interesting and thought-out look at the film's production, including new interviews with people involved with the film, archival interviews with Lean and O'Toole, and even some interesting behind the scenes footage. Produced by Laurent Bouzereau, it manages to cover most of the bases, from the film's genesis to its release and legacy. This is backed up with an interesting short featurette in which Steven Spielberg raves about how much the film influenced him, but also mentions that, when he showed Lean the restored version of his film for the first time, Lean gave him a running director's commentary. It's irritating that Criterion didn't manage to record it, as they did with Martin Scorsese and Michael Powell on Black Narcissus! Still, a nice addition.
The rest of the extras go for quantity over quality. The making-of featurettes are of limited interest, and really only worth watching once, as are the marketing and advertising featurettes. The interactive maps feature is fairly interesting, if rather basic, but it is the only feature on the disc that touches on the real TE Lawrence. A trailer and the usual production notes and biographies round out the disc. As a DVD in its own right, it's fine, but, compared to Criterion's Spartacus, it's a massive letdown, failing to have any substantial information about Lawrence himself, or even about David Lean. Still, not a bad package to act as a rather limited companion to the film, although a better insight might be gleaned from reading Kevin Brownlow's excellent biography of Lean.
This should be one of those essential parts of any film lover's collection, but it's hard to avoid the feeling with the extras that corners have been cut. The sound and vision are exemplary, however, and the film itself remains a classic, albeit one that is perhaps not quite worthy of the adultation heaped upon it. Recommended.